The recent demise and subsequent resurrection of the Navy’s rating system has brought considerable attention to a side of the Navy that is unique among the armed services (shared only by the Coast Guard), somewhat mysterious to outsiders, and a byproduct of the evolution of technology.
All the services rely on a hierarchical rank system that is used to determine levels of authority and responsibility and provides a common pay scale. Most people understand the concept of military “rank.”
While the Navy and Coast Guard embrace the concept of rank, they do not share the same nomenclature with the other services. For example, a major in the Army, Air Force, or Marine Corps equates to a lieutenant commander in the Navy or Coast Guard; sergeants in the other services are petty officers in the iconoclastic seagoing services; and all the services use the titles of captain and lieutenant but in very different ways.
A source of additional confusion to the uninitiated are the titles of “rates” and “ratings” that are unique to enlisted members of the Navy and Coast Guard. These two similar-sounding terms have substantially different meanings. While rate is a close relative of rank (as explained below), ratings are used to describe occupational specialties and are non-hierarchical. Each rating has its own name (Gunner’s Mate or Quartermaster, for example), an official abbreviation (GM and QM, respectively), and a visual symbol (crossed cannons for the Gunner’s Mate and a ship’s helm for the Quartermaster). There are currently 60 ratings in the Navy and 22 in the Coast Guard.
The other services also have occupational specialties, but only Navy and Coast Guard personnel wear those specialties on their uniforms; each rating’s specific symbol is part of a “rating badge” that is worn on the upper left sleeve.
Over the decades, many ratings have come and gone. Tracing the history of these debuts and demises is a study in the evolution of technology as it applied to naval warfare. In the formative years of the American Revolution, the Navy’s relatively few ratings included Boatswain’s Mate, Gunner’s Mate, and Quartermaster—all of which survive today—as well as Cooper, Carpenter’s Yeoman, and Yeoman of the Gun Room, all now extinct. Changes in propulsion technology can be traced through the ratings of Sailmaker’s Mate, Coal Heaver (later Coal Passer), Motor Machinist’s Mate, Boilermaker, and Gas-Turbine System Technician, while evolving weapons technology brought such ratings as Armorer, Turret Captain, Mineman, Aviation Ordnanceman, Guided Missileman, Chemical Warfareman, and Nuclear Weapons Man.
Among the strangest were specialists known as Crystal Grinders, Pigeon Trainers, Cable Censors, International Business Machine Operators (later Punched-card Accounting Machine Operators), and Discharge Interviewers. Today, the strange-sounding Aviation Carpenter’s Mate reminds us that early aircraft were fragile machines built primarily of wood and canvas, and Caulker, Lamplighter, and Captain of the Mizzen Top serve as reminders of how far we have come from the days of “iron men in wooden ships.”
The number of ratings peaked during World War II, when the prewar total of 30-some exploded to nearly 200. At war’s end, the Navy launched a program to develop a more streamlined and orderly rating system, ultimately devising the one that currently is in place.
Then there is the term “rate,” often confused with rating but notably different. Traditionally, the Navy uses the term “rank” in reference only to the officer paygrades, and “rate” is used to describe the enlisted paygrades. But adding more confusion, the term “rate” really has two meanings. Like “rank,” it is roughly equivalent to paygrade and is often used that way. For example, Seaman Apprentice or Petty Officer Third Class are rates. But rate is more often considered a combination of paygrade and rating. If a sailor says she is an Electrician’s Mate she is telling you her rating, but if she says she is an Electrician’s Mate Second Class she is telling you her rate.
This means that enlisted sailors who have earned a rating actually have two different ways of describing their rate (equivalent to rank), one generic and the other more specific; in the example above, that sailor is both a Petty Officer Second Class and an Electrician’s Mate Second Class.
The recent uproar over Navy leadership’s decision to scuttle ratings and introduce a system more in line with those of the other services made clear that sailors are more likely to self-identify with their rating or their specific rate than with the generic one, preferring to be a Quartermaster First Class rather than a Petty Officer First Class, for example. The outcry caused the Navy to restore the ratings system despite its potential confusion and incompatibility with the other services.
Sometimes traditions trump pragmatism or simplicity.
Lieutenant Commander Cutler, a former Gunner’s Mate Second Class, is the Gordon England Chair of Professional Naval Literature at the U.S. Naval Institute. His many books include numerous editions of The Bluejacket’s Manual (Naval Institute Press), a copy of which every U.S. Navy enlistee receives.